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The Walking Dead Gives ’Em What They Want

The Walking Dead

My son and I play a game called “Zombie.” Basically, I chase him around while pretending to be a zombie and making those hungry/throaty zombie noises, then I finally catch him and pretend to gnaw on his arm or leg. He giggles the whole time. Little kids love zombies. You know who else loves them? Adults! The Walking Dead is hotter than ever; it’s drawing higher ratings for AMC than NBC’s top three shows combined. With another Dead season wrapping next week, it’s important to remember the five ground rules we established in Season 3.

Ground Rule No. 1: Zombies Will Die
Every Sunday night, no matter what, you’re gonna get to see zombies die. Would you like to see someone shoot a zombie in the head so their zombie brains splatter everywhere? What about multiple zombies getting decapitated by a samurai sword? Any interest in an arrow zipping through a zombie skull, or maybe even a butcher’s knife getting rammed through a zombie eyeball? You’re getting these things. In spades. Every week. Count on it.

Ground Rule No. 2: Nobody Is Safe
If a character isn’t working, don’t worry — they aren’t sticking around for an extra few years like Dr. Melfi, Andrea Zuckerman or even Billy Packer. They’re getting killed off. And guess what else? They’ll kill off people you like, too. It’s quite liberating. You’re always on your toes.

Ground Rule No. 3: Nobody Laughs During a Zombie Apocalypse
You know those “comic relief” characters that every show has? Don’t count on seeing one in The Walking Dead. Every character looks like they’re passing a kidney stone at all times. It’s the zombie apocalypse, after all. No jokes, no laughs, no sarcasm … save that shit for Twitter. We’re trying to kill zombies here.

Ground Rule No. 4: We Will Listen to You, the Internet
After Osama bin Laden was killed, the most hated person on the Internet became Rick’s wife on The Walking Dead. And this was well earned. Terrible mother, terrible wife, floozy, hypocrite, manipulator … and none of these things were intentional. This was like watching the WWE screw up one of their “good guy” characters, only in this case, Rick’s wife couldn’t really go heel because of what it would have done to her son, Carl. When they finally killed her off during childbirth and had her son shoot her before she became a zombie, I actually said the words, “I don’t think they went far enough — I wanted to see one of those zombies eat her face off.” I rarely agree with showrunners overreacting to the whims of Internet fans, but in this case, Rick’s wife had to go.

Ground Rule No. 5: Zombies Will Die
I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget Ground Rule No. 1. By serving a never-ending slew of zombie deaths and blowing its budget on extras and special effects — not famous actors, or even good actors — AMC has stumbled into Moneyball for television (Zombieball?). I don’t care if anyone survives on this show except Daryl (the guy with the bow and arrow), Maggie and Hershel. But if you told me I’d go five weeks without seeing a zombie get decapitated? I’d flip over my coffee table. The people running Dead understand this now. Which is why these two clips are related.

And …

So those were the new stakes heading into last night’s second-to-last episode. Season 3 revolved around a brewing holy war between Woodbury (a gated community led by the increasingly evil “Governor”) and Rick’s crew (The Rickettes, who live in an abandoned prison). Two Sundays ago, the Gov’s former flame (Andrea, a former Rickette who had about 760 chances to kill the Gov and somehow blew all of them) brokered a sit-down between the Gov and Rick that became gripping for the bad acting more than anything else. Poor Guy Who Plays Rick. He just sucks. You know he’s bad because he made The Governor look like Daniel Day-Lewis, and I think they hired him straight from a British porn set. Again, you don’t watch this show for the acting.

The Governor presented Rick with a moral dilemma: If he delivered Michonne (a mute, dreadlocked, samurai sword–wielding African American badass) to Woodbury, they’d have peace. The Governor wanted Michonne to pay for murdering his zombie daughter (he’d been keeping her alive in case someone came up with a zombie cure), impaling his eye (now covered with an eye patch) and just generally looking like Tracy Chapman (he hated “Fast Car”). If Michonne wasn’t delivered, we’d have war.

Just one problem: As the leader, Rick always made big-picture decisions that protected the group while setting some sort of example for his future serial killer of a son, Carl … who is clearly headed for an adulthood of killing hookers who look like his mom (assuming they make it out of the zombie apocalypse, but whatever, that’s still a few years away). Handing over Michonne to get tortured/degraded/murdered by the Governor … where’s the decency in that?

In last night’s episode, after Rick asks if he should give up Michonne, Daryl sums it up best by saying, “This ain’t us,” and Hershel adds, “No, it isn’t.”

No kidding. Hey, Rick, here’s an idea — throw everyone in a few cars, hightail it out of there and try to find a safer nesting place. This isn’t rocket science. What’s so great about a dark prison that stinks of festering zombie guts? Instead, Rick finds Merle — Daryl’s one-armed psychopath brother, the resident loose cannon of the Rickettes and someone who once tried to murder Michonne — for Merle’s take on the whole situation. This was like Jerry Jones going to Roger Goodell and saying, “Hey, I was thinking of signing Jonathan Vilma. What would you do?”

Merle senses Rick’s apprehension and throws a curveball, going on the offensive (“You cold as ice, Officer Friendly”) before cutting right to the heart of the problem.

“I don’t know why I do the things I do,” Merle says. “I’m a damned mystery to me. But I know you, Rick. Yeah, I thought a lot about you. You ain’t got the spine for it.”

In five sentences, Merle just summed up three years of The Walking Dead. Rick never had the backbone for this job. He was always the leader by default, because they couldn’t find anyone better than him. There’s nothing inspiring about him. Even Carl The Future Hooker Serial Killer knows that his father shouldn’t be leading anymore (and said as much a few episodes ago). A little bit later, when Merle confidently predicts to his brother that Rick is gonna buckle, he sounds like Skip Bayless talking about LeBron James during the 2011 Finals. But he’s right. Rick WILL buckle at some point. It’s the only interesting thing about his character — we’re certainly not watching him for his unforgettable charisma.

Speaking of bad acting, Michonne would have been the 39th most interesting character on Lost. It’s amazing how far a samurai sword and a few hundred decapitations can get you. She makes the mistake of killing a few zombies with Merle (our first five deaths of this episode), followed by Merle sucker-punching her, putting a bag over her head and sneaking her out of the prison to solve Rick’s problem for him. Next stop: Woodbury! He’s taking matters into his own hands because Rick isn’t man enough to do it.

(Quick tangent: I love Merle — I have him ranked as Michael Rooker’s second-best character, just behind Henry from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and just ahead of the guy from Cliffhanger, who inexplicably blamed Sly Stallone for killing his girlfriend for reasons that remain unclear. I feel bad picking on Poor Guy Who Plays Rick, but think about the acting on Lost compared to Dead. Rooker would’ve stolen scenes on either show. Poor Guy Who Plays Rick could’ve barely cut it as one of The Others. Even if Rick’s character was being played by someone as solid as Matthew Fox, it’s a completely different show.)

The Merle/Michonne scenes were surprisingly solid, including two semi-funny lines (“I wanted my sword back before I got away” and “You gotta play the hand you’re dealt — I only got one”) and Merle inadvertently setting off a car alarm while hot-wiring a car, causing zombies to spill out for this week’s contractually obligated someone-is-tied-to-something-as-zombies-approach-them scene (in this case, Michonne). I love when people are tied to stuff as zombies approach them — it’s a viewer victory every time.

After wiping out a few more zombies, they resume the drive to Woodbury with Merle telling Michonne about Rick’s dilemma. They start talking about the Rickettes. Incredibly, she pulls a Jedi mind trick on him:

Merle: “You’re as on-the-outs as I am, girl.”

Michonne: “Maybe — but at least when the Governor’s done with me, I won’t have to live with myself.”

Within a minute, he’s pulling her over and letting her out. Huh???? They have a little moment as she leaves. Then, Merle drives off to take down Woodbury himself. (If they had played Fast Car as Michonne was walking away, I think I would have high-fived my plasma.) Back at the jail, nothing is going on except for Glenn getting testy with Daryl about Merle’s increased involvement in the Michonne Dilemma, leading to this moment:

Daryl: “Maybe you could have a little forgiveness.”

Glenn: “He tied me to a chair, beat me and threw a walker in the room.”

Yeah, but still! Later, Glenn asks for Hershel’s blessing because he wants to marry Hershel’s daughter, Maggie. Why marry anyone during a zombie apocalypse? Because she’s Walking Dead Hot. In other words, she’s pretty as far as actresses go, but in zombieland? She might as well be Katherine Webb in Splash standing next to Louie Anderson. Being Walking Dead Hot is like being Female Prison Guard Hot or Press Box Hot or Sports Memorabilia Convention Hot … if you’re a seven or an eight in any of those male-dominated universes, it feels like a 27. Glenn can’t risk losing Maggie to Daryl or something. He’s locking her down.

Now here’s where you say, “How did Glenn get a wedding ring during a zombie apocalypse?”

Great question. Well, he walked over to the giant fence outside the prison, found a hungry female zombie trying to get to him, then cut off the wedding ring finger of the zombie. How can you not love this show? And by the way, I’m 99.7 percent positive Maggie would have been fine with a handshake over a zombie wedding ring. The proposal was just as gooey and awkward as everything else that happens with Maggie and Glenn — here’s hoping their wedding gets cut short when a zombie reverend chews through Glenn’s tux.

One other thing happened back at the prison: Near the end of the episode, The Poor Guy Who Plays Rick gave a speech to the group about how he needed to lean on others more (and stop over-leading). How uninspiring was it? Halfway through, AMC broke out some Rudy music to spruce it up. Didn’t work. Rick finished the crappy speech, then walked off without letting anyone else weigh in. Again, I want to start leaning on you guys more. But before you have a chance to respond, I’m out of here. What an ass. I wish Carl would accidentally kill him already.

Back to Merle, if only because we’ll remember this one as The Merle Episode: He infiltrates the outskirts of Woodbury by luring two dozen zombies with him, then rolling a car toward it — as a distraction — before hiding nearby and shooting a handful of the Governor’s guys. (Get it? A handful?) Who ended up foiling Merle and blowing his cover? A stupid zombie! I hate those things! The Gov beats him up, beats him up some more, then finally shoots him dead. So much for the Merle era. If it’s any consolation, I have him ranked as TV’s best Merle ever, narrowly edging Merle from Eight Is Enough.

Of course, Daryl belatedly followed them out of the prison (he does stuff like that), stumbling on the carnage a few hours later. (Note: Something like 25 people/zombies were killed in that shootout, and maybe 60 over the full hour, putting this episode way up there in John Hollinger’s Human/Zombie Efficiency Murder Rankings. That’s been the best thing about Season 3 — the HZEM has been off the charts all year.) Over the past three years, Daryl might be the only Dead character with a unanimous approval rating, to the point that Norman Reedus has become the Josh Holloway of this show — you always watch him thinking, Could this guy be a bigger star, or is this just the perfect role for him? In Holloway’s case, Sawyer was probably the perfect role; he hasn’t done much since. We’ll see about Reedus.

But anyone who stuck with this show for three years knew what was coming next. That’s right, Reedus’s Emmy moment. Because there’s a sixth Ground Rule for The Walking Dead that I didn’t want to spoil too early in this recap. Here’s the rule:

When any decent character dies, they absolutely and unequivocally HAVE to return as a zombie, then get re-murdered by someone who loves them.

That’s just the way of The Walking Dead. So there’s Daryl walking through that post-shootout battlefield with blood and guts and dead zombie bodies everywhere, and there are some zombies chewing on a corpse, and there’s Daryl walking toward another zombie …

(It’s Merle, isn’t it.)

And now he’s taking a good long look at the zombie …

(Shit, it’s gonna be Merle.)

And then the zombie looks up from his bloody meal and …

(Dammit.)

Merle.

A crying Daryl kept pushing Zombie Merle away before begrudgingly ramming a knife in his chest, then stabbing him in the head 29 times. It’s the way of the world in a zombie apocalypse, the bleakest of places, where you’re perpetually surviving as you’re forgetting how to live. Most convince themselves to protect others, if only because it gives them some purpose. Rick wants to protect the Rickettes, but really, he just wants to protect his future serial killer son and his newborn probably-not-his-baby that can miraculously fend for itself without help. The Governor wants to protect everyone at Woodbury, as well as the power he garnered there. Andrea can’t decide what she wants to protect, so she vacillates back and forth. Glenn wants to protect his Walking Dead Hot fiancée and his one-legged father-in-law. Maggie wants to protect Glenn and her dad and her sister who never has any lines.

Looming over everything: that dreadful moment when a loved one ends up dying, and then you have to re-murder them. That’s the law of The Walking Dead. What would you do? Would you put a bullet in your zombie child’s head if you knew they weren’t coming back? Would you kill your zombie dad? Your zombie wife? Your zombie best friend? What would you do? You can’t watch this show without thinking about that question. ALL THE TIME.

That’s why Daryl and Michonne have the best gigs on this show. They reinvented themselves as professional zombie assassins, and really, it’s become something of an art form for them. Daryl carries his bow and arrow; Michonne carries her sword. They could survive within the framework of the group or they could survive on their own. They don’t have ties to anyone. They will keep killing those zombies for us. That’s what they do. That’s what we want.

(One more time!)